Friday, 9 September 2016

CrossCode

CrossCode is a game that I've been keeping an eye on for a while now. Just from looking at it, the game oozed retro charm with its very 16-bit aesthetic and overhead Zelda-inspired perspective. Actually sitting down and spending some time with CrossCode reveals that there's a lot more to it. The game isn't simply a retro throwback meant to tug at our heartstrings through the powers of nostalgia. There are a number of modern day conveniences and design philosophies at work that a lot more depth to the experience.

The basic premise of CrossCode is that players take on the role of a girl named Lea who is trapped in a virtual world that is part of a popular MMORPG. It's all rather reminiscent of anime series such as .Hack and Log Horizon. Complicating things is that Lea has lost her memory, so she doesn't really understand much about the world that she's in. Luckily, she has the help of Sergei Asimov, a human in the real world who is communicating with Lea, trying to help her with her memory. From what I've played so far, he hasn't helped a huge amount and has been mostly helping Lea regain her ability to speak, as she's been affected by a glitch in the game whereby she can't talk. She may not be a brilliant conversationalist but it's a convenient way of pushing forward the silent protagonist.

As one progresses, they experience more of the world and Lea meets other players in the MMO. She has to keep her background a secret, though, as they think she's a normal player just like them, not a person trapped in the game. As she meets all of these people and they get to chatting, we see various nods to the MMO genre. What's nice about this is that dialog doesn't linger on jargon that is commonly associated with the genre. Instead, it's more about player attitudes and behaviors. It's a nice change of pace, as it seems like various shows or games that make reference to MMOs get hung up on language and spend little to no time looking at what makes the genre special in the first place: all of the different people who play the games.

In terms of actually going around and doing stuff, on a base level, CrossCode has a lot in common with classic Zelda games when the series was all about the overhead perspective. This can be seen through the various zones connected together that are teeming with monsters, often with treasure chests in hard to reach places, enticing players to figure out how to get to them.

Getting to said treasure chests, not to mention doors / passages to other zones is where we see the game come into its own, as platform puzzles play a big role in players getting around. There isn't any actual jump button when Lea explores an area, but when she comes to a ledge or a bit of ground that isn't much higher than where she is, Lea will jump automatically. With that, players can explore a given zone and try to figure out which ledges are of the appropriate heights and distances from one another to traverse to hidden or generally hard to reach areas.

Things become even more complicated in dungeons where the platforming becomes even more difficult and the puzzles more complex, incorporating moving pillars, and switches that have to be activated in very specific ways. It's also worth noting that dungeons are extremely large and can take over an hour to get through, usually with a very tough boss at the end.

There's also a fairly decent amount of character customization in CrossCode thanks to the game's talent tree. Branching into four directions, each specializing in different aspects (melee attacks, ranged attacks, health, and defense), the branches give players the option to enhance various base stats as well as unlocking new abilities. On top of this, players slowly learn different elemental abilities which can be treated as stances that Lea can switch between, each of which have corresponding branches on the talent tree that become available when she learns these stances. As such, even more customization is unlocked.

As mentioned earlier, the game's visuals are quite reminiscent of what one would expect to find during the 16-bit era, especially games that were showing up on the SNES at the time. Character and enemy designs are of the cutesy variety, while zones are fairly different from one another ranging from lush forests to snow-swept mountains to high tech facilities. One thing that really stood out while wandering CrossCode's world was how vibrant and colorful the aesthetic is, The colors really do pop off the screen.

Meanwhile, the music has quite a bit of synthy melodies going on that reminded me of Phantasy Star quite a bit. Being a huge fan of the music in that series, this suits me just fine.

At this point, CrossCode has been available on Steam's Early Access for a fair bit of time. There's already a lot to do in the game, so I'm getting the impression that it will be quite long when it's finally completed. As of now, the game is only slated for the PC and Wii U, but who knows, maybe it'll get brought over to other platforms in the future. It's certainly looking promising and will likely gobble up quite a bit of time for people who like Zelda-inspired action RPGs.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Castle in the Darkness

This whole neo retro thing that has been emerging from indie games has been pretty great, I think. Being someone who grew up playing stuff like the NES, Genesis, and SNES, seeing new releases that are very obvious nods to the games of that era is most welcome. We even get the benefit of tighter controls, faster gameplay, and the implementation of various newer game design ethos that have come along recent years. So, we wind up with a game that is both nostalgic and fresh at the same time.

Lately, I've been fiddling around with one such game called Castle in the Darkness (henceforth referred to as CitD). It's been out for a few years and has a light metroidvania feel to it. Players are pitted as the last surviving knight in their castle after it was attacked, and who must now fight through legions of enemies in said castle to save the kingdom.

Visually, the game looks like something that could just as well have appeared on the NES. The sprite work is very well done and true to the period all while eliminating the flicker and other graphical shortcomings that Nintendo's old console was known for. Character and enemy design goes for a cutesy approach with players controlling their adorable little knight and proceeding to fight cute little enemies, all while helping cute little townsfolk. The bosses aren't so little, but still reasonably cute in their design, with some being impressively large, taking up a fair bit of real estate on the screen.


From the aural side of things, CitD covers the bases in therms of sound effects and music. From what I've played thus far, there haven't been any particular standout tracks. The tunes just do what they need to, harking back to the 80s with catchy, bouncy bleeps and bloops. It certainly fills the nostalgia quotient, but doesn't go above and beyond that.

As I mentioned earlier, the game has a light metroidvania feel to it. There are branching paths, items to find, and obstructions that can't be passed without finding these items. This results in a degree of exploration and backtracking just like in the days of Metroid and Castlevania, or at least installments in those series that involved exploration and / or backtracking.

With that there is plenty of marching through varied albeit castle-y environments as players stab their way through hordes of undead in search of doodads and bosses. Areas I've come across thus far have some pretty noticeable nods to Castlevania, particularly one zone with bits of clockwork gears twirling around which instantly made me think of the clock tower in Castlevania III.

CitD is pretty challenging too, with the game happily keeping count of how many times players die. After dying 50 times, an easy mode is unlocked for those who want to tone things down a bit, and even then the game poo-poos people for opting to take the easier route, implying that only wimps that don't play a lot of games would want to use it.

Personally, I don't find it too terrible, but then again I'm an old geezer who cut his teeth on games of this ilk. All it really takes is learning enemies' attack patterns, figuring out platform timing, and getting a handle on controlling your character. The last part actually takes a wee bit of practice, as your little on-screen knight has some momentum behind him when he moves. This results in him moving forward a tad after running, and a bit more after a running jump, so players need to be aware of this and learn to compensate for it while platforming.

As you've probably surmised, I've not yet finished the game, but it has been tugging on just the right nostalgic heartstrings thus far, so I've been inclined to yak about it a bit. Folks that like these indie games that hark back to times of yore may want to consider tracking it down. If anything, wait until a Steam sale. The game is already cheap and when those sales happen it can go for under a buck, so you don't have much to lose.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Revisiting Star Wars Republic Commando

There haven’t been a huge number of first person shooters set in the Star Wars universe, but when they’ve come along, these games have turned more than a few heads. Republic Commando was one such game to do this thanks to its enjoyable, easy to use squad-based campaign. Leading a group of four clone soldiers on a trio of missions, players were often kept quite busy fending off hordes of droids, Trandoshans, and Geonosians as they did the Republic’s bidding, ultimately catapulting the game to becoming a favorite among Star Wars fans.

When it’s functioning as a full-on squad based FPS, the game is a joy to play as one fights the separatists, barks out orders, and does their bit for the Republic. However, any time that the player is removed from their squad, the game loses something. Thankfully, these moments are far and few between, but when they happen the change comes into sharp focus.

As the name of the game suggests, players take the role of a Republic commando as his team go on a variety of missions. They’re in a unit called Delta Squad, so these guys are elite soldiers, usually being the first sent into a hot spot to establish a foothold for the rest of the Republic’s forces, or being involved in some sort of smaller special forces type of operation. There isn’t much in the way of a story. The game takes place during the events of the prequel movies, so one can see the overlap with events from those. What it feels like more than anything else is an adventure that might as well be called, “A day in the life of Delta Squad”. Under different circumstances, something like this would feel sparse in narrative, but it works here. The squad has its orders and need only concern themselves with executing them. None of this is to say that the story is cold and by the book, however, as there is a lot of banter between everyone while undertaking missions. It adds a humanness to each character, preventing them from becoming cardboard cutouts, and showing that these guys have personalities of their own.

This strong focus on the mission also helps to make the level design in Republic Commando feel more appropriate in the greater context of what’s going on. By the time this game came along, the old ethos of creating sprawling labyrinths to be explored was well on its way out of favor, being replaced by far more linear levels that had players jumping from one scripted event to the next. Sometimes this stripped down approach was difficult to swallow with certain games’ stories not lending themselves well to this type of level design, but it worked here since it so well suited to the systematic nature of the insertion missions that Delta Squad focused on. Sure, there were corridors and passageways conveniently blocked off by debris, but special forces units aren’t about bumbling through a maze, hoping they miraculously stumble across their objectives. They go in with useful intel so that they can get the job done as quickly as possible, and hopefully without incident.


Working with the squad as they do this is where the game really shines. It’s very straightforward giving orders to its members, lovingly named 07, 40, and 62 by the Republic. On the first level while attacking Genosia, players are slowly introduced to the members and the basics of squad commands. Everyone has separate landing sites, so you start off on your own and the rest of the team slowly join as you progress through the level. All the while, one gradually gets more and more opportunities to plant demolition charges, splice computers, and setup sniping or grenadier positions.

After a short while, all of these commands go from being quaint to essential as the team’s weapons don’t exactly hit very hard if they’re relying on their rapid fire blasters. It’s very important to assess any situation, and get people sniping and / or tossing grenades, while possibly also pointing out priority targets if a particularly powerful foe attacks. These weapons hit a lot harder and end fights much quicker, preventing the squad from getting overwhelmed. It’s also far more enjoyable taking a lay of the land, spotting optimal spots to snipe from, and learning the most effective ways to deal with enemies. Unfortunately, sniping and grenadier spots are determined by the game itself, with them being made known when your reticule passes over one of them, meaning that players can’t position squad members however they please. It’s not so bad, though, as there are usually a decent number of places where they can set up shop.

Once the game gets going, it’s quite satisfying to bark out orders, clash with tons of droids, Trandoshans, and the like. Things can get hectic in a hurry too with a good dozen or so enemies running around, while some weapon platform unloading on the squad from a distance, and droid dispensers spitting out yet more combatants, all the while trying to provide cover for one of the commandos as they frantically splice into a computer. This is where Republic Command is at its best.


However, as I mentioned earlier, there are times when you aren’t with the squad and things are nowhere near as entertaining. Thankfully, these instances aren’t all that frequent, but when they happen it’s hard not to notice the drop in excitement. Early in the game, it’s all very forgivable as the first few areas are like mini tutorials introducing players its mechanics. Enemies die fast and you aren’t really expecting anything because, well, the game just started. Things take time to ramp up. The problem comes later in that Geonosian assault because things really do ramp up. Droids everywhere. Some rather large and scary. Everyone scrambling to rescue comrades, snipe bugs, and basically doing their best to survive.

Then the second mission starts on a Republic acclamator and the squad each infiltrate the ship from a different area, forcing the player to fly solo for a while. This is where it becomes easy to see just how important the squad mechanics are to enjoying the game, as things taper off considerably until you’re reunited with everyone else. The level of intensity takes a dive as the number of enemies thrown at the player is reduced, which makes sense given that it’s only you and contending with hordes of baddies would have been overwhelming. However, the way enemies attack just isn’t very interesting. It’s usually just small packs of Trandoshans that come running up and are fairly easy to dispatch, especially once you start utilizing the shotguns that they drop.

It’s not very difficult and it’s not much fun either. The only time things get tough is when the game goes for scripted events and just drops enemies on the player out of nowhere which you either react to or die, think “Well, I won’t do that next time…”, get past the obstacle and move on. Exacerbating the matter is that this drags on for too long. It’s a relief once you start finding your squad mates again and can get back to doing more interesting fights, especially by the end of the mission where things really start to pick up, which just shows the contrast all that much more between squad and solo play in the game. The acclamator just feels like a low point in Republic Commando.

That being said, a lot of people still hold the game in high regard. It’s not like you need to run solo very often anyway, and when it comes time to do the final mission on Kashyyyk you’re with your team the vast majority of the time except for a little bit toward the very end. Ultimately, the simple, easy to use squad tactics are very appealing, and nowhere near as in-depth as something like Ghost Recon or Rainbow Six. It gives players the simplest of tastes of running with a group and giving them orders so to complete a mission mixed into the Star Wars universe, and that is plenty good for most people.

There aren’t a huge number of Star Wars first person shooters but when they come along they tend to be well done and Republic Commando lives up to that expectation. It pushes all of the right buttons for fans of the franchise while providing a fun, basic squad-based approach to combat. Sure, going it alone is not quite as fun, but it’s something that can be overlooked for the most part.

One thing that is difficult to overlook, though, is the music for the end credits, which is generic butt rock for some reason. It makes no sense after all that Star Wars music in the game. Why is it there? Weird.

That aside, Republic Commando is one more title to slide into the “Good” shelf of licensed Star Wars games. Even now, several years after its release it’s well worth revisiting. If you’ve never played it before, May 4th is almost here, so maybe now’s the time to try it.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 1

Having been watching this game off and on since it was announced, I’ve been curious just how Hyper Light Drifter would finally turn out. It has some very eye catching visuals with very pretty pixel art that really helped the game to get its foot in the door, but it’s followed up with a Zelda-inspired experience filled with opportunities to explore and some reasonably challenging baddies to cross swords with.

There have been no lack of games to come along in recent years to go the pixelated route with obvious nods to games of the past. Some of these have been good, others not so much. HLD is definitely in the first camp. It’s visiting a lot of stuff we’ve seen before like the aforementioned Zelda series, but there’s just so much polish here. Combat is fluid and fast-paced, there’s a heavy emphasis on exploration and non-linearity, environments and characters hint at a massive backstory, and the aesthetic of the game is its own instead of just being another pixel art game that looks like something straight off the NES or SNES. This is the sort of game that serves as an excellent example of something that taps into retro games without feeling derivative; at the same time tapping into a lot of modern sensibilities.

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 2
At its heart, the game has a lot in common with old classic Zelda titles with its overhead view, combat style, and so much exploration. In fact, combat feels smoother and faster than anything I’ve ever come across in a Zelda game. Given what HLD throws at players, though, it’s easy to see this being a necessity. It’s definitely a challenging game. That being said, I think most people’s opinion of this will hinge on how much they’ve played old 8 and 16-bit games of this ilk. If you have indeed played a number of those types of games, HLD will seem reasonably manageable, though still fairly challenging, but those who haven’t may run into difficulty.

Enemies all have patterns and tells to their attacks. One needs to simply pay attention for a moment and watch the baddies do their thing while making use of the dodge button so they don’t get hit. It doesn’t take long to figure out what types of attacks enemies do and what sort of animation they perform before unleashing it so that players have the good sense to get out of the way. It only gets really intense when a room locks the player in and a bunch of enemies spawn at once to swarm the hero. In this case, things do get dicey, requiring some fancy footwork to dodge everything enemies throw at the player. Even then, it’s not insurmountable. The game doesn’t just drop players into these situations. It eases them in. Players are slowly introduced to the different enemies, and only after making it a fair way into a given dungeon do they find themselves in such situations.

Bosses too are a matter of learning patterns. If anything, I found these guys easier than some of the swarming incidents. They have very discernible patterns that don’t take long to learn, and it’s simply a matter of execution after in order to take them down. Really, these were the most reminiscent element of 16-bit gaming in HLD for me.

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 3
Your character also has a variety of unlockable abilities that can be purchased from trainers in the hub town of the game. While wandering around the countryside, players will gradually gather little yellow tokens and once they have enough they can be exchanged with the trainer for a new skill. These tokens are actually quite rare. They aren’t like coins that can be farmed to one’s heart’s content. They’re hidden in boxes and sometimes drop from enemies, but once they’ve been collected they never respawn. Also, once they’ve been spent there’s no turning back because the game automatically overwrites your last save after purchase, preventing save scumming whereby if players don’t like the ability they can just load up an old save and try something else. That just isn’t allowed here. As such, players need to think long and hard before buying a skill because once they have it that’s it, they’re stuck with it. If they want another they’ll have to head out into the wilderness and figure out where the rest of the hidden tokens are. So, in that regard there are some choices that have consequences in this game.

All the while, there’s quite a bit of exploration to be had. Players start in a hub town situated at the center of the world map with four exits: North, South, East, and West. From there it’s up to the individual to where they want to go. Generally each path leads to some sort of major temple where a boss is waiting to be defeated and some ancient device needs to be activated, but along the way there are no lack of detours to go on. There are a number of smaller power devices and keys that need to be found in order to get to a boss, so players need to wander around and find all of these as well, venturing down different paths. Some of these can be quite hard to find, and actually require you to run your character against the edges of an area. At some point, they may pop into a hidden passage tucked away behind a building or beneath a canopy of trees. They can be tough to see, but once found it’s quite satisfying, especially because they usually lead to useful goodies like more yellow tokens, health packs, or dungeon entrances.

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 4
As one wanders this world, it’s hard not to wonder about its past. Just from looking at the surroundings, it’s obvious that players are in some sort of post apocalyptic setting. There are ruined buildings, old broken down robots, and dilapidated cannons everywhere, overgrown with foliage, being clear remnants of a fallen civilization. With all of this, though, we don’t get much explanation of how all this came to pass or why we’re doing what we’re doing in HLD. This is a very intentional approach, as the game has no dialogue in it. Any time the player talks with an NPC, they aren't greeted with a text bubble. Instead, a window opens with a series of still images depicting a short story. It’s enough to get the idea across but leaves a lot open to the imagination. While it does leave the player with some questions, at the same time it helps build a sense of wonder about HLD’s world as one tries to fill in the blanks on their own.

Also building this sense of wonder is the game’s aesthetic, as it has some of the nicest pixel art to come along in the last little while. HLD’s graphics very much have a personality of their own in terms of character and enemy designs, environments, and even the color scheme. As mentioned earlier, far too many pixel art games simply mimic things we’ve seen in 8 and 16-bit consoles, but this one does its own thing, allowing HLD to clearly stand out from other pixelated projects available.

The music also helps to enhance the experience. It has a very analogue synth feel to it reminiscent of Blade Runner. The game has the same composer as Fez, so it’s easy to see the similarities between the two. It works quite well here with the generally mellow, whirring minimalism of the synthesizers building the sense of wonder and loss permeating through HLD’s world.

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 5

In the end, Hyper Light Drifter is a game people who like Zelda-esque action adventures should consider spending some time with. There have been plenty of other games to come along and provide similar experiences, but HLD is so much more polished while developing a personality of its own. The game is fairly challenging, but by no means impossible (if anything, I’d say that the Dark Souls series gives me more trouble than this did). With games like Dark Souls III, Quantum Break, and the HTC Vive coming out about now, there’s a chance HLD might fall between the cracks, but it’s a game that really deserves to be played. It just does so many things right, and looks great doing it.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Strange Product Tie-In Games

Finding new ways to get the word out about a product has always been something that marketers have toiled over. Whether it’s cleverly placing a can of pop in the background of a scene in a movie, flying blimps over stadiums, or wacky publicity stunts, increasing mindshare and getting people excited about their widgets has always been their thing. So, when video games came along, executives in board rooms the world over looked at the technology and thought to themselves, “Hey! The kids seem to like that stuff. How can we use that to our advantage?”

With that we’ve seen a steady stream of games come out over the last 30 years centered around this or that corporate mascot reminding us that their products exist and, just maybe, we should buy some. Obviously, a lot of these were pretty bad, but on the rare occasion one turned out to be somewhat entertaining. One thing is for sure, though, the majority of them raised eyebrows when they came along as people questioned who in their right mind would make a game based on that.

Today we’ll be taking a look at some of the stranger and more interesting product tie-in games to come along, the vast majority of which seem hell bent on reminding us that things like fast food exist. For the sake of brevity, we’ll be limiting this to console games and PC titles with proper releases. Browser and mobile games won’t be mentioned because we’d be here forever if we tried to wade through the legions dross to show up on those platforms.

Spot: The Video Game

In the late 80s and early 90s, 7Up actually had a mascot. The little red dot on the drink’s logo sprouted arms and legs, slapped on a pair of sunglasses, did cute things, and was suddenly a hit. The thing was plastered across billboards, in magazine ads, and getting into adventures in TV spots.

In time it made its way to video games. Most people are probably more familiar with the Genesis platformer Cool Spot (more on that in a bit), but the first appearance that the little guy was featured in was for 8-bit systems with Spot: The Video Game. It was basically reversi with the little Spot guy being moved around to choose where to play the next chip. The game could be played by up to four people with everyone passing the controller around when it was their turn.

It was a very simple game given the premise, and only took about six weeks to develop, eventually making its way to the NES, Amiga, Atari ST, Gameboy, and DOS.

Cool Spot

Here’s the Spot game that most people probably remember. It was a platformer, and a very good one at that. This shouldn’t come as a surprise when one considers that David Perry and Tommy Tallarico worked on it, two key members in the team that would go on to make the Earthworm Jim games.

It had solid controls, interesting level design, and looked amazing when it came out. As one would expect from the genre, players had Spot run and jump around levels, climbing to hard to reach areas, and shooting fizzy bubbles at enemies. In a lot of ways, it felt like a logical progression from the television commercials that aired at the time featuring the little guy.

Importantly, the game remembered to embrace the cutesy feeling that Spot gave off. He was pretty adorable in the ads, so people had a certain expectation he’d be the same in a game featuring him. This wasn’t really the case in the first game, but Cool Spot managed to pull this off much better with all of the little animation touches that the developers gave him.

Each level was a bit of a collect-a-thon as players had to explore them in search of cool points. Once they had enough, they’d be allowed to leave and progress to the next area. If someone wanted to put a little bit extra effort in, they could keep collecting these points and if they found enough, they would be able to go to a bonus stage.

In the end, this game gave people a bit of hope that video games based on products could actually be good. In hindsight, it’s easy to see things didn’t turn out quite so well, and Cool Spot is more of an anomaly. While it may have turned out to be one of the better platformers of the 16-bit era, other developers didn’t take the game’s example to heart unfortunately.

Spot Goes to Hollywood

A few years later, another Spot game came out. Once again, it went in a very different direction from the previous game. This go around, traditional platforming was eschewed in favor of a game with an isometric overhead view. It was still pretty much a platform game, but the change in perspective threw a lot of people off.

The basic premise was the same as Cool Spot with players hunting down cool points on each level. There weren’t as many to track down as the last game, but they were scattered all over the place, so could take a while to find.

Combat was where players tended to get frustrated while playing the game. Since it was an isometric view, aiming Spot’s projectile attacks could be difficult. This type of perspective can be quite finicky about this, and Spot Goes to Hollywood was a good example of it. Worse still, is that enemies tended to have quite a few hit points, resulting in them taking entirely too long to go down. The viewpoint also resulted in many a player watching Spot plummet to his death after miscalculating a jump while platforming.

The game eventually got ported to the PlayStation and Saturn when those systems came along, but in the end most people just scratched their heads trying to figure out why the developers opted to make the game isometric in the first place. Cool Spot was very good, and most people would have been just fine with more of the same, rather than this.

Spot: The Cool Adventure

While all of these home versions were coming along, 7-Up had their eye on the Gameboy as well. It was becoming popular, and what better way to encourage people to buy their drink while they’re out and about than to have a game based on it that they can take along with them.

This was actually the first platformer to feature Spot, having released a year prior to Cool Spot. It’s very straightforward in that regard and one has to wonder how much effort the game’s publisher really wanted to put into it.

This because the game is pretty much McDonaldLand (aka Mc Kids). The only difference is that the sprites were swapped out to reflect the fact is was a 7-Up based game rather than being a land of hamburgers.

Pepsi Invaders

In the early 80s, it seemed like just about anything would appear on the Atari 2600. In fact, just about anything did show up on that system, hence why the US video game industry eventually experienced a crash.

Helping to contribute to this was Pepsi Invaders, a game promoting Coca Cola. So bold was the company that not only did they place themselves as the hero in the game, but they put their arch rival in as the villain.

As the name suggests, it’s basically a Space Invaders clone, but instead of the usual ship fighting off swarms of evil aliens, players controlled the forces of Coca Cola as they shot down rows that read “PEPSI” with an alien at the end for level after level. While many point at ET as being the straw that broke the camel’s back when the crash came, Pepsi Invaders is a reminder that there were plenty of other terrible games that helped it along.

Pepsi Man

It would be over 15 years before we saw another Pepsi-based game, and, miraculously, it was actually not bad. Developed by KID, Pepsi Man came out for the PlayStation in 1999.

The game was a primitive endless runner where players controlled Pepsi Man as he ran down the street collecting Pepsi cans, dodging all manner of obstacles like trash, falling furniture, cacti, or whatever else seemed appropriate for a given level.

Looking back, most folks who remember the game think fondly of it for its silly, lighthearted style and simply being a product-based game that wasn’t completely terrible. Many have clamoured for a new game featuring the mascot, but given all of the legalese involved with such an endeavor it probably isn’t going to happen. One kind soul did make a mod for Metal Gear Rising that allows players to use Pepsi Man in it, though, which is nice.

Probably the biggest tragedy with the game is that it apparently didn’t sell well, which is a real shame.

Yo! Noid

Depending how old one is, and assuming they grew up in North America, some folks may remember when Dominos Pizza had an annoying red mascot called The Noid. People were reminded to avoid him because he’d steal our pizza. During the late 80s, good luck trying to turn on a TV and not see the thing cackling maniacally while making off with somebody’s pizza.

With him being everywhere, it was only a matter of time before he showed up in video games. Oddly enough, Yo! Noid isn’t the first game that he showed up in, but it’s probably the one most people are familiar with.

Developed by Capcom, the game was a reasonably decent platformer, and a major overhaul of Kamen no Ninja Hanamaru, which it was released as in Japan, with very different art, but identical gameplay. Nobody knew what the Noid was over there, so it made little sense to feature him in the game.

The game was by no means easy with a lot of quick deaths for the unprepared, and even the prepared. Really, folks got mad playing this game. If they didn’t already hate the Noid from all those commercials, surely this would push them over the edge.

Avoid the Noid

The first Noid game and was released on the Commadore 64 and for DOS in 1989 and it made a lot more sense than Yo! Noid did. Players took on the role of a pizza delivery boy who had to deliver pizzas, answer the phone, and basically do what the game told them to right on the box: Avoid the Noid.

It wasn’t a very long game, and was quite simple, but the spectacle of it all was a pretty over the top. Your character could dive out of the way of danger, and with good reason, seeing as there were rockets flying around trying to blow him up. The Noid traditionally took pizza theft quite seriously, and the developers made sure that this game reflected his zeal.

In the end, Avoid the Noid fell between the cracks as far as product-based games go, but it’s still worth remembering for being the first Noid game if nothing else.

Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool and Wild Wild Quest

Cheetos seem to be something a lot of people associate with those who play a lot of video games. I’ve never been one of them, because it just doesn’t make sense. Cheetos are one of the worst things to eat while playing video games because your fingers get all messy, and before long so does your controller. It’s disgusting and wrong. Who in their right mind does such a terrible thing? Usually people have that one friend who does that, but they quickly learn to never let them near their video games.

Nonetheless, we got two games featuring the things’ mascot during the 90s, Chester Cheetah, with Too Cool to Fool in 1992 and Wild Wild Quest in the following year. Both were extremely uninspired platformers that looked like a quick money grab by the developers to make something quick and easy.

Neither were worth wasting one’s time on and before long people knew to treat the games just like the people who ate the terrible product they were trying to promote and didn’t let them anywhere near their video games.

Kool Aid Man

A game featuring the Kool Aid Man sound like something that should work. Something aggressive with destructible environments. Just give us a game where we bust down walls and give kids sugary, vaguely fruit flavored drinks, and no sense of responsibility for such wanton destruction. It would perfectly encapsulate what Kool Aid is all about.

Unfortunately, the game came out in the early 80s for the Atari 2600 and a number of other systems during that time and technology just wasn’t ready for something like that yet. Players would have to settle for moving a juice jug around the screen and catching other jugs as they wastefully poured their libation to the evil Kool Aid Man god.

It was a very colorful game, though, so that was nice.

Global Gladiators

While McDonaldLand was alluded to earlier, the McDonald’s game that we really want to focus on today is Global Gladiators. This was a sneaky one because first and foremost the game was promoting environmentalism rather than fast food, which, of course, will set off all sorts of alarm bells for anyone who is remotely cynical at corporate attempts at altruism.

The game runs on the same engine as Cool Spot and Aladdin seeing as it was developed by David Perry and his team at Virgin Interactive. As such, it was actually pretty decent on the whole. Players controlled a couple of kids who were going around stopping all sorts of toxic shenanigans while taking orders from Ronald McDonald.

All the while, images of the McDonald’s logo were pasted across the screen, reminding folks that the company existed because non-stop TV commercials and locations just about everywhere apparently just weren’t enough to solidify the fast food chain’s place in the public’s mindshare.

Burger King Big Bumpin’ and Sneak King

Not to be outdone, Burger King also had a could of games come out in recent years. On the whole, these were a lot creepier than anything McDonald’s ever put out, but given how unsettling their mascot at the time was, someone dressed as a king with an over-sized head, this probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

It all started innocently enough when Big Bumpin’ crept into the Xbox 360’s library. Players whizzed around bashing into one another in bumper cars. Sure, the king was their in all of his creepy glory, but the game was good clean fun, and refreshingly not crap, so not much to complain about there.

However, Sneak King was another beast altogether. Here players controlled the king as he snuck up on unsuspecting people to surprise them with a present: a hamburger. (Although given his attire, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking the present might be something pervy instead). It was like a high cholesterol Metal Gear Solid with tights. Folks enjoyed it, but at the same time it’s hard not to think the whole thing is a little unsettling.

Yoshinoya

Most people in the West likely have no idea what Yoshinoya is, although they apparently have a few locations in the US. It’s a chain of beef bowl fast food restaurants from Japan that are quite popular over there when someone wants to hop in for something to eat quick on the cheap.

In 2004, a game based on the chain was released for the PlayStation 2 in Japan. It was basically a restaurant manager where players oversaw a location, filling orders, serving customers, and generally making sure that everyone was happy. On the whole, the game was pretty decent as it was a reasonably well put together manager game at its core.

Unfortunately, it never left Japan, which is understandable given that it doesn’t have a huge presence outside of there. Nonetheless, it would have been nice to see it come West even if it got rebranded as something more recognizable for audiences there.

Darkened Skye

The Gamecube got a very sneaky product tie-in game about a decade ago. At first glance, Darkened Skye looks like a very straightforward action adventure game in a fantasy setting. There are monsters, forests, warriors, the usual stuff. However, upon closer inspection someone can see something is wrong. What could it be? Wait a second… Magic is powered by Skittles?

Yes, that’s right, Skittles. The little sugary fruit flavored candies that get stuck in one’s teeth and are the bane of fillings everywhere is an integral element of sorcery in the realm of Darkened Skye.

The game’s developer had made several games based on M&Ms which were largely forgettable being quickly cobbled together platformers and kart racing games. This one largely sticks out simply for being based on Skittles. People know what the things are. Some even like to eat them. It just seems so out of left field that of all the candies out there, this is what was selected for a game.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

An Early Look at StarCrawlers


About a year ago, StarCrawlers slinked its way into Steam's Early Access and since then has been getting regular updates as it makes its way to becoming shipshape for a full release. In a world where science fiction themed RPGs are vastly outnumbered by ones with a decidedly fantasy shtick, this one certainly got me to raise an eyebrow when it came along. Moreover, it's a dungeon crawler, and as such had me instinctively reaching for my wallet. Of course, with it being unfinished, this excitement could have been premature if playing it revealed a game needing much more time in the oven. After pouring a fair bit of time into the game, that's certainly the case to a degree, but thus far it seems to be more a case of sorting out some of the text in conversations than any game breaking bugs.

This is a first person dungeon crawler with procedurally generated areas, so, right off the bat, one can see that exploring, fighting baddies, and collecting loot will be a big part of StarCrawlers. While there is an actual main line of quests with a story, most of one's time can be spent wandering futuristic corporate offices, derelict space ships, monster-infested mines, and the like without paying it much mind.

Players have a space station referred to as STIX that they use as a home base between jobs. It has basic amenities to help aspiring crawlers do their job better. There's a shop for buying, selling, and upgrading gear, a medical bay for patching up badly injured party members and resetting talent trees, there's a black market for playing a lottery to get gear of varying degrees of quality, and, most importantly, a bar.

The bar is where StarCrawler's main quest line advances and where players can find the job board to accept new missions to go on. Jobs are divided by difficulty and can be told apart by their color coding. Gray jobs are of a low level and will be very easy for your team to complete, green are also easy but not complete pushovers, yellow are slightly challenging with enemies a level or two above your party, and red are hard missions with much stronger enemies. As one would expect, pay and experience gets better and better the harder a mission is. Your reputation with various corporations will also impact what jobs are available. Obviously, if you've pissed off a particular faction, they aren't going to be offering you work. Also, most of these companies are trying to screw one another over constantly, so completing missions will put you in some of these factions good graces while steadily increasing the ire of others.

It's also possible to recruit new members for your team at the bar. These are actual individuals that are being hired, though, and not a class of character that can be recruited again and again. For example, once you hire Bob the Force Psycher, he's your Force Psycher. You've made a commitment to this guy. It doesn't appear to be possible to have multiples of a particular class in a party. Given that each class has talent trees with three branches this also means that one can't have two of one class in their group with each character accentuating a different branch of the tree, which is a bit unfortunate.

The classes themselves are pretty neat. More or less they follow typical RPG party rolls with tanks, damage dealers, support, and the like. However, there doesn't appear to be a bonafied healer. Protecting characters is performed more through covering them in shields and other buffs or just getting a soldier to tank harder, rather than belting out some sort of curative ability from time to time in order to replenish an injured party member's health. There are health packs one can carry around with them and use as needed, though, should traditional healing become necessary.

So far, there are eight different characters available. Players can recruit all of them eventually, but they must choose four to go on any given mission while the rest stay behind on the space station. Since the different recruits have three different branches to their talent trees, they can serve a variety of roles. Depending on one's disposition, some pretty adventurous builds can be had, but they also have some fairly traditional progress paths as well. For instance, once I saw that soldiers have a lot of tanky options to them, I chose to accentuate that rather than fiddle around with heavier damage options. Similarly, cyber ninjas can be very good at dishing out damage, so that's what I've been focusing on with that class.

The roles that have caught my attention the most are ones with support capabilities and the caster classes. For the former, engineers and hackers have struck me as the most interesting. Engineers use spare parts like a resource (think mana) which they use to issue orders to their pet robot. Her talent tree is divided such that different types of robots will be made depending on which branch players spend points in. This can lead to a tank-oriented robot, a damage dealing robot, or a support robot. The nice thing about this is that as a result players can add more units to their party in the form of their robot while out in the field. Hackers, on the other hand, are very much a support class. Most of their abilities in battle are either damage over time attacks, crowd control / debuff skills, or applying various buffs to the party. These characters don't hit very hard, but over the long haul can be very helpful in a fight. As their name suggests, they can also be quite useful when hacking into various terminals and trying to disengage various security systems.

Looking at the casters, these are divided into two types: Force Psychers and Void Psychers. The former has powerful attack abilities and can shield party members. However, they have a very finite amount of force points available to them so battles need to end quickly or their usefulness begins to trail off quickly once they run out of force. Void Psychers are known for being slightly insane and have an enrage mechanic to play off of. Most of the abilities they use build up a void meter that counts to 100. Once it gets over 50, this character becomes increasingly unstable and there's a risk that they'll lose control, releasing a massive explosion of void energy that inflicts damages on all enemies and all allies alike. However, they also have abilities that consume this energy, bringing the meter back down. With that, players need to manage it, letting it go up and risk losing control so to unleash these abilities. It's a particularly dangerous situation because many of their best abilities require quite a lot of void energy to hit hard or even use in some cases. At the moment, I'd argue that Void Psychers feel a little bit overpowered. Once they get going, they absolutely demolish enemies, especially once they start getting to the strongest abilities in their talent trees. Even with the risk of running wild, as long as players are mindful not to get their meter all the way up to 100, the chances of this happening generally aren't that bad.

About the only major problem that I've run into while recruiting new members is that they come in at whatever level the rest of your party is at the time of the hire. So, if you recruit one and wait till later to get more (because these guys do cost a fair bit early on), once you recruit the rest and feel like using them as a B-Team the early recruits will be falling behind in levels. Worse still, random mission assignments match the average level of your group, so if you do have one or two characters that were recruited early, but kept on hold till later, they can become a liability on these missions since they're so far below the recommended level.

That being said, if the group is of a recommended level, the game does feel a little bit easy so far. My main team consists of a soldier, hacker, force psycher and void psycher, and these guys are demolishing everything that the game throws at them. About the only trouble they've run into are some of the more advanced security units that either hit really hard or constantly summon robots into a battle. Even then, the void psycher's miasma ability is a powerful area of effect damage over time ability that usually hits every enemy on-screen. Meanwhile, all of my party members have very good weapons and armor, so they can hit like a truck even when not using abilities. In fact, my hacker has a pair of blades at the moment that inflict a DoT of their own, plus her own DoTs, plus the miasma ability, so each turn enemies often take over 100 damage without my party even doing anything once all of those are up. With that, pretty much everything melts in front of this group. I've yet to come across a truly devastating foe in the game as a result, not even some type of boss, resulting in the game feeling like a bit of a pushover at the moment, even when doing missions of the hardest difficulty.

Loot in StarCrawlers has an easy to understand color coded system which has become prevalent in RPGs. Grey is common, green is somewhat rare, and blue is the rarest. As one would expect, the rarer the gear, the more powerful it is. There are only four slots on each character, so there isn't a huge amount of stuff to go around, just weapons, shields, armor, and accessories. Also, some attribute slots don't do anything at the moment since the game is still in development and just have the acronym NYI, which I assume stands for "Not Yet Implemented". By the looks of things, though, the developers do want loot to be a draw for the game as people hop into dungeons again and again in search of better gear.

If players are going to be replaying areas constantly, the levels and enemies better look good, and they do here. There are a decent mix of environments to explore, though it is recommended to read the description of a mission before hand to get an idea of where you'll be heading. Failing to do this could result in players going to corporate offices or mines constantly, and getting bored of seeing the same environments over and over. The levels themselves have a nice atmosphere to them with dim lights, various bits of furniture, computers, and equipment appropriate to their settings. They don't have a huge level of detail, but they get the job done. Enemies also look good, but their variety is a bit lacking at the moment. I've fought legions of the same types of robots, space mites, worm-thingies and the like without much deviation from this limited range of baddies. Hopefully we'll see more added by the time the game is complete because as it stands, things could get redundant if more enemies aren't added.

Given that the places players go to are procedurally generated, there's a bunch of variety in that regard. A lot of art assets are obviously the same, but going around the levels, watching out for traps, hacking into computer systems, and just generally exploring is good fun. There's a mini-map that plots everything out as you go, and it can be expanded to show everywhere the player has been, so it's easy enough to figure things out. Basically, it gives a nice, quick means for people who like first-person dungeon crawlers to get their fix and be on their way. I haven't come across a dungeon that's taken more than 30 minutes to complete yet, so it's a very in and out experience.

This is where the appeal will come while playing StarCrawlers: hopping in for a quick mission or two and hopefully getting some snazzy loot. It's quick and to the point with straightforward dungeon crawling and combat. My only real complaint right now is the potential for neglected characters to get left behind and have difficulty catching up level-wise unless players bring them one at a time on missions until they've gained some levels, which could get tedious in a hurry. As it stands, there aren't very many first person dungeon crawlers on the market, and certainly not any with a science fiction theme. StarCrawlers could be the game to fill that void.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

A Look Back at Gaiapolis

Elaine in a castle
There was a time when Konami pumped out a lot of really great beat 'em ups. Hell, there was a time when Konami pumped out a lot of really great games, but that's a story for another day. Right now, we're here to set our gaze back to 1993 when the company released Gaiapolis. It's not exactly one of their most well-remembered games, which is a shame, but it was a good romp and a beat 'em up that tried to do things a little bit differently.

Right from the get go one can see that the game was trying to break away from beat 'em up convention. The perspective of everything happening on screen is from a much more overhead view rather than seeing everything from the side. It works quite well and allows for a lot more freedom of movement than other games in the genre. Instead of being on that constant march from the left side of the screen to the right, players would guide their character left, right, up, and down.

Granted, quite a lot of time was spent going from the bottom of the screen to the top. However, going in these other directions made the levels feel larger and more natural when compared to the much more simple, linear experience one would get when traversing the stages of most other beat 'em ups.

Also, the game was a looker. Around this time, Konami was making some very pretty games, particularly for the arcade. Their sprite work could be quite detailed and they were using rather bright colors in many of their games. The result were games whose visuals really popped off the screen and caught the attention of those passing by, enticing them to drop a quarter or two into the game and give it a go. Gaiapolis was one such example of this thanks to the high fantasy settings and anime-inspired character designs.

Another thing that the game did to set itself apart from its competitors was to implement some basic RPG elements. Characters would gain experience whenever they defeated an enemy, leveling up once they had gained enough, as well as occasionally coming across a new weapon that they could use that would make them stronger. Also, there was a surprisingly fleshed out story, especially for this being an arcade game. After each stage, there would be a simple cut scene with some portraits and dialogue text as the characters discussed their situation and what to do next. It wasn't much, and Gaiapolis certainly wasn't the only example of this happening in arcade beat 'em ups as Capcom was experimenting with similar ideas in games like The King of Dragons, but adding these aspects to the game resulted in a greater sense of progression than what one might have found in other comparatively simple games of the genre.
Gerard versus a robot
The story itself is simple enough. The Kingdom of Avalon has been destroyed by the Zar Harc Empire, and now Prince Gerard Himerce wants to take revenge for what happened to his kingdom. If players aren't all that keen on vengeful princes, they have two other characters that they can choose to play as. First there's Elaine, a half-human and half-fairy who looks an awful lot like Nei from the Phantasy Star games. Alternately, one can go with the dragon warrior Galahad if they prefer. They all handle a little bit differently, but not by a huge amount.

It's interesting to note that this also made the game fairly long as far as what one would usually find in an arcade. Gaiapolis clocked in at over 60 minutes to complete, and probably closer to an hour and a half for most people. By arcade game standards this is an eternity. Most of these things would take 30 minutes tops someone to beat, and, really, taking longer than that could feel like one was becoming pressed for time, or at least instilled a slight fear of missing the bus or appointment. Gaiapolis was pretty darn massive by comparison. In order to address this, Konami included a password system whereby players could jot the thing down and pick up from where they left off at another time. Granted, password systems can be pretty obnoxious as anyone old enough to remember those things can attest to, but it was a huge help in getting through this game without being stuck in the arcade for hours on end.

Of course, the big question with a game like this is, "How's the beating things up part?" To which one would have to answer, "About what one might expect." It's not the most exciting response that could be given, but it is accurate. Trudging through any given level, players smash their way through wave after wave of Zar Harc cannon fodder, which aren't all that difficult if one makes even the slightest effort to avoid being swarmed. These guys largely feel like an opportunity to get some experience points and hopefully level up, giving players a greater sense of accomplishment, rather than any kind of serious opposition.

On the other hand, the bosses themselves are where players will really feel like they've done something important. These enemies were quite large and usually had a decent amount of mechanics. One would have to make a point of learning their patterns of attack and adjusting accordingly. For their time, these were some pretty neat fights.

NES version of Gaiapolis
The NES version of the game in all
of its 8-bit glory.
Helping to keep combat in general a little more interesting were helper pets that could be found in treasure chests from time to time. These would be creatures like an armadillo, a baby dragon, or a little rodent in armor with a war hammer. They didn't look like much but could be quite helpful in fights.

Unfortunately, Gaiapolis never received an official home port. Konami was very hit and miss in terms of which arcade games they gave ports to, generally leaning toward the miss side of things. Unexpectedly, though, a team of Taiwanese pirates (the coding kind, not the swashbuckling Yee-har-ar type) took it upon themselves to make a bootleg version of the game for the NES. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but here we are. The game isn't completely horrible, which is nice, and it does make for a quaint novelty, but one can't help but wonder why they didn't opt for the SNES at least if they were going to put themselves through all that work anyway. Other than that, the game has largely faded into the mists of time outside of Elaine inexplicably becoming an unlockable character in Konami's equally obscure Battle Tryst.

So, there we have it, Gaiapolis. One more of Konami's classics that far too many people are either forgetting about or never knew existed in the first place. The game is well worth trying out for anyone curious. It's an enjoyable enough beat 'em up and a reminder of when Konami was still one of the dominant forces in the arcade.